Small Grains Breeding and Genetics


For more than 100 years, Cornell has been developing innovative approaches to improving small grains. Today, the Small Grains Genetic Research Program uses appropriate technologies encompassing molecular genetics, physiology, pathology, and breeding to research strategies that contribute to the development of superior crop varieties.

We collaborate with plant breeders and geneticists around the world including international centers on projects that involve the use of molecular markers to assess genetic relationship, construct linkage maps, and clone genes. The focus of our basic work involves comparative genomics, association mapping, allele characterization and especially genomic selection methods. Characterization of allelic diversity and allelic value in both wild and cultivated germplasm is fundamental to crop improvement and efficient strategies are a major focus.

Current research projects include gene expression, genetics, and physiology of preharvest sprouting resistance, milling and baking quality, kernel size and shape, plant pigments, mapping novel stem rust resistance genes, and genomic selection for nutritional quality and adult plant stem rust resistance. We also recently launched a large project on evaluating ancient and specialty grains. Association analysis and allelic diversity experiments are employed to facilitate the identification of superior alleles for genes of economic importance so that they can be assembled in superior crop varieties.

Variety Development

The small grains breeding project at Cornell was established at the same time as the department, in 1907, by Dr. H.J. Webber. Dr. J.B. Norton began the oat breeding program, and Dr. H.H. Love came to the department as a graduate student in the same year. The following year, Norton left to rejoin the USDA, and Love assumed leadership of the oat project. Wheat research began in the fall of 1907, and Love expanded and continued small grains breeding research until his retirement in 1949. Dr. N.F. Jensen came to Cornell in 1945 and became the program leader in 1949. Mark Sorrells joined the project in 1978, and Jensen retired in 1979.

The applied goals of the program are to:

  • Develop and evaluate novel breeding strategies for selection and for testing large numbers of genotypes for desirable agronomic characters.
  • Elucidate the inheritance, chromosomal location and expression of genes controlling economically valuable plant characteristics.
  • Develop, evaluate, and introduce new cultivars of small grains having improved yield, nutritional quality, disease resistance, and other characteristics that increase the crop value and production efficiency.

As we progress toward these goals, a regional variety testing program is conducted annually for wheat, oats, and barley. Additionally, program researchers and extension specialists collaborate with plant breeders and geneticists from around the world, including international centers that use molecular markers to assess genetic relationships, construct linkage maps, and map genes.

    Faculty and staff in the Plant Breeding and Genetics Section of the School of Integrative Plant Science conduct annual trials of new and leading spring and winter wheat, spring oat, and barley varieties at three or four locations, evaluating the varieties for yield, maturity, resistance to disease, lodging, and pre-harvest sprouting.

    If you would like your varieties evaluated in our trials contact: Mark Sorrells.